Salon.com Wins Credibility Online With Intelligent and Stylish Content

'Pure-play" news and information Web sites--exclusively online rather than offshoots from print or broadcast journalism--often seem to model themselves on USA Today: Most stories work best in a few paragraphs, plus a colorful chart.

Such sites, which are all bright lights and colored buttons, engender a click-here culture that tends to parse, summarize or list-ify everything, leaving little screen real estate for reflection.

According to the monitoring firm Nielsen/NetRatings, the users of major newspaper Web sites spend less time at those sites in a month, on average, than readers of the print versions spend in a day.

The antidote to this twitchy brevity is Salon.com, which turned 5 last month--an eternity in Web years.

San Francisco-based Salon recently won the first Online Journalism Award for general excellence, administered by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which also manages the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Magazine Awards.

Created by David Talbot and other defectors from the San Francisco Examiner, Salon combines news and investigative reporting with columnists such as humorist Garrison Keillor and literary provocateur Camille Paglia. The site has played a major role in putting Web-only journalism, criticism and commentary on the media map as a worthy competitor to print and broadcast.

"They've demonstrated that you can be literary, pointed and analytic on the Web in a way that's as effective as in print," said Tom Goldstein, dean of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Steven Johnson, co-founder of Feed, at http://www.feedmag.com, said, "We spent our first six months explaining what a Webzine was." Feed is a comparable, though smaller-scale, site that is considered one of the Web's journalistic pioneers. "After Salon, we didn't have to do that."

Along with Feed and Slate, Salon is one of a handful of general interest, Web-only publications that have consistently bucked the conventional wisdom that people rarely read beyond one screen length (although Slate, owned by Microsoft, has recently shown signs of succumbing to the quick-hit story syndrome).

Salon regularly provides analysis and commentary that delights as it challenges. Its coverage of politics, technology, sex and culture is consistently irreverent and provocative.

But in the business side of its operations, Salon's editorial risks have paid few dividends. Salon.com lost $1.59 for every dollar of revenue in the last quarter--a big improvement from the period a year earlier, accomplished partly by a round of layoffs last summer. Salon.com's stock has tanked, along with shares of other "dot-coms," hovering around $1 per share for months after touching a peak of $15.13 in July 1999--making Salon a poster child for the financial weaknesses of Web media.

The site's execs project profitability in the near future; experts say that would be Salon's most shocking story yet.

But on the content side, Salon's style and intelligence have won many awards and attracted a mass following--about 2 million users in October, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. And Salon regularly beats the mainstream media at their own game. In January, it broke the story that top TV shows such as "Drew Carey" and "ER" surreptitiously included anti-drug messages as part of a deal with the White House. Last week, Salon revealed a new twist in the Florida election debacle--that thousands of African Americans may have been dropped from voter rolls after being falsely designated as convicted felons.

A series of Clinton sex-scandal scoops by Salon were capped by the story that really put the site on Washington's radar--revelations that Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the sanctimonious leader of impeachment efforts in the House of Representatives, had carried on an illicit affair from 1965 to 1969. Some reporters at large papers and broadcasters later said they had passed on the story. Yet they followed Salon's coverage even as it was denounced as sleaze.

"Whatever you think of the ethics [of the Hyde expose], it was an important moment for those of us in Web publishing space to see Salon play a major role in the impeachment story," Johnson said.

Salon also experiments with new forms of journalism.

In one such innovation, Salon uses a uniquely Web-centric approach to writing a book. The topic is Linux operating-system software, an insurgent competitor to Microsoft Windows. Unlike a software product owned by a single company, Linux is "open source"--available free online, adapted and refined by thousands of volunteer programmers working independently around the world.

Andrew Leonard, a Salon technology writer, is writing a book about the history and people behind open source in a way that reflects the movement itself. He posts sections on Salon; readers post responses that Leonard later uses to improve his manuscript.

Feed is betting that Web journalism and criticism ultimately will be defined by such reader participation. "The most interesting sites are where the audience drives the site as much as possible, rather than just responding to the articles," Johnson said. "We're moving very aggressively in the direction of having our readers, our users, be as much a part of the discussion as the writers we pay."

And Salon recently upped its stake in the nascent realm of Internet audio by acquiring MP3Lit.com, a top provider of spoken-word content. This allows users to hear or download readings from famous writers--sometimes in their own voices on historic recordings--as well as the site's own columnists.

"You can take more chances and risks online. And the Web rewards that, even encourages it," Talbot said in an interview last August.

Talbot sees Salon as becoming the first Web-only daily paper, the main source of news and information for millions of readers. That's another big risk. Attempting something akin to a daily-news operation on a shoestring budget could easily dilute the qualities that readers look to Salon for--investigative reporting along with quirky and compelling takes on issues of the day.

Of course, if Salon.com can survive for five more years--five Web lifetimes--it may only dimly resemble today's site or Talbot's current vision. But whether or not Salon stays around for the long run, Johnson said, "when you tell the history of content online, whatever it turns out to be, Salon will have been a major part of it."

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Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached at charles.piller@latimes.com.

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